It’s the most confounding question surrounding the 2015 Buffalo Bills.
Just what’s gone wrong with the defensive line?
What was supposed to be a quarterback-terrorizing collection of Pro Bowlers has instead resembled a unit that’s looked rather … ordinary.
A season after finishing with 40 combined sacks, the foursome of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes has just six through seven games. That puts the group on pace for 14 this year.
Not surprisingly, then, the highly paid members of that defensive line have started to get frustrated. Mario Williams made waves after Buffalo’s loss in Week Six to the Bengals, when he said he “set a record” for dropping into pass coverage. Shortly thereafter, Dareus agreed, pointing out the Bills “pay us a lot of money” to rush the passer.
That they do. So when it doesn’t happen, it’s understandable to question why. Analytics website Football Outsiders ranks the Bills’ defensive line 29th out of 32 teams through Week Seven in both defending the run and rushing the passer, a staggering disappointment considering what the Bills are spending up front.
With the Bills at their bye week, The Buffalo News is taking a position-by-position look at the state of the roster. Members of the defensive line are up:
Mario Williams: His three sacks lead the team – nobody else has more than one – but that ranks tied for 41st in the NFL. Among edge defenders, the analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks Williams 117th out of 147 graded players, the but it’s important to note that includes a ranking for any player who has taken a snap. The idea that there are 116 better edge players in the NFL than Williams is utter lunacy – there might not be six. There are times where he seems to disappear from games, but then there are moments when he looks like a man playing against boys – like against Jacksonville when he threw a Jaguars offensive tackle out of the way with one arm. Williams was right to question why he was dropping into coverage as much as he did against the Bengals. The Bills need to put him on the edge and let him get after the quarterback. That’s why he gets paid $20 million. At 30 years old and in his 10th season, Williams hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. He’s played 94 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, and although he’s not an out-front type of leader, has kept his calm on the field when so many of his other teammates have come unglued. Grade: B-.
Hughes: Entering Week Seven against Jacksonville, PFF had tracked Hughes as dropping into coverage 33 times this season, after doing so just 12 times in all of 2014. Like with Williams, that’s a dumb idea. Hughes is best when he’s bending around the corner of the offensive line with speed. After signing a contract worth up to $45 million in the offseason, Hughes’ one sack through seven games is a disappointment. Still, with 20 over the last two seasons, it’s obvious the talent is there. The Bills just need to find the right way to utilize it. The biggest negative with Hughes continues to be his propensity to take penalties. He’s got a team-high seven this season, five of them personal fouls. At this point it’s clear Hughes is either incapable or unwilling to change his style of play. Grade: C.
Kyle Williams: Long a favorite of the analytics community, Kyle Williams’ ranking on PFF is currently 47th out of 191 graded players. He has nearly identical grades against both the run and pass. A knee injury suffered in Week Six against the Bengals held him out last week against Jacksonville. Williams is approaching the point in his career when it will be fair to wonder how much he’s got left. Grade: C+.
Dareus: With Dareus as the anchor, the Bills’ run defense has been steady, allowing just one 100-yard rusher all season. His one sack so far is disappointing coming off a season with 10, but Dareus has been asked to occupy multiple blockers – a job he performs admirably. PFF ranks him as the third-best defensive tackle in run defense. After a pair of offseason incidents last year brought about a one-game suspension and took him out of this season’s opener against the Colts, Dareus has stayed out of trouble. Grade: B.
Corbin Bryant: With Dareus out in Week One and then Kyle Williams out in Week Seven, Bryant has stepped into the starting lineup twice. The defensive coaching staff has complete trust in his ability to do so, for good reason. Bryant has a thorough understanding of the scheme and has shown the defense can still operate at a high level when he’s in the game. He embraces his role as a backup and is the kind of veteran depth any team would want. Grade: B.
Stefan Charles: Being a healthy inactive in Week Two raised a red flag, but Charles has bounced back from that to fill a similar role to last season – that of a rotational player along the defensive line. Under Ryan, however, the Bills’ starters up front don’t sub out as much, which means Charles’ playing time has decreased. He’s gone from taking 31 percent of snaps in 2014 to playing 22 percent this season. He has a sack and forced fumble so far this season. Grade: B-.
Alex Carrington: He’s been the odd man out more times than not along the defensive line, sitting out four games as a healthy inactive. In playing just 10 percent of the defensive snaps, Carrington has just one tackle. Especially at defensive end, Ryan rarely subs out Mario Williams or Hughes. As long as everyone stays healthy, it’s hard to see Carrington getting more snaps. Grade: Incomplete.
IK Enemkpali: After serving a four-game suspension, Enemkpali was added to the Bills’ active roster prior to Week Six. He’s taken just 11 defensive snaps so far, but that number went from one to 10 in two weeks, which could be a sign the coaching staff likes what it has seen from Enemkpali. If he does continue to get more work, it figures to come in relief of Mario Williams and Hughes as an edge pass rusher. Grade: Incomplete.